How We Can Protect Our Skin From the Sun, Environment

One in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer by age 70.
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Long days of fun in the sun are approaching, and no one is more excited about this than I am. 

My pale skin is eager to be kissed by the sun. Though, at what cost? I have been burned quite a few times over the years and never thought twice about it. Did you know that having five or more sunburns in your life doubles your risk of developing melanoma, the most dangerous of the three most common types of skin cancer, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation

My dermatologist recently told me I am at high risk for developing skin cancer at some point in my life. The good news is skin cancer is highly treatable, especially if detected early.

Dr. Kristen Whitney, board-certified Allegheny Health Network dermatologist, says to properly care for our skin, especially as we age, it helps to understand how the skin, our body’s largest organ, is structured.

“There are three main layers to the skin — the epidermis, which is the outer layer that protects us from sun, bacteria and other germs. The dermis, the largest layer made up of important proteins collagen and elastin. The hypodermis, the bottom, fatty layer that cushions muscles and bones, has connective tissue, helps the nerves and blood vessels and regulates body temperature,” she says.

According to Whitney, our bodies stop producing as much collagen as early as our 20s. 

“By the time we reach 40, we have lost 20% to 25% of our collagen,” she adds. “As the collagen becomes less abundant, it becomes the main contributor to skin aging and gives us wrinkles and changes our skin texture and tone.”

Though there are quite a few collagen powder drinks and supplements on the market, Whitney notes there isn’t really enough evidence to recommend them to patients.

“There are too many unknowns on the dosage and source, and how much it really gets to your skin,” she says.


There are six factors that can lead to skin aging:

  • The sun. More than 90% of our visible aging is due to the sun, which also increases skin cancer risks, Whitney says. 
  • Pollution and environment.
  • Smoking, which narrows the blood vessels in the skin, depletes it of nutrients and oxygen, which also damages the skin’s collagen and elastin.
  • Poor nutrition and processed foods. 
  • Lack of sleep and stress.
  • Alcohol, which can dehydrate the skin over time.

Whitney stresses it is never too late to start taking care of our skin.

“The first thing to do is to protect your skin from the sun,” she advises. “Wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen of at least SPF 30 to protect from both UVA and UVB rays year-round, even on cloudy days. Make sure to apply it at least 15 minutes before exposure. I personally recommend sunscreens that have titanium and zinc as active ingredients; they are also called mineral sunscreens.”

She also tells her patients to wear wide-brimmed, tight knit hats to protect the scalp and neck, UV blocking sunglasses and a lip balm that contains SPF 30. A lot of people don’t think about protecting their lips.”

The Skin Cancer Foundation also has abundant information and sources to help protect our skin and eyes from the sun.

For skin care regimens, simpler is usually better, she says. Overdoing it can dehydrate our skin.

“You don’t have to have a big budget and buy a lot of products. I recommend using a gentle facial cleanser and a facial moisturizer daily. If you want to step it up, the next product to try are retinoids or topical vitamin A creams. They sell them over-the-counter, but there are also prescription-strength creams your doctor can prescribe. These can help with brown spots, skin tone and texture,” she says. “There are also topical antioxidant serums that contain vitamins C and E and exfoliants like glycolic acid that have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.”

Some patients with larger budgets opt to receive certain procedures from their dermatologist or plastic surgeon, such as  chemical peels and microneedling. She stresses to seek the professional opinion of board-certified physicians to find the proper skin care regimen for you and your budget.

Keeping our skin hydrated by drinking lots of water and eating a balanced diet with fruits, vegetables and fish can also go a long way. Exercising is also a great way to increase our skin’s oxygen flow. 

“The biggest thing we can do for our skin is to stay out of the sun unless we are properly covered because of its impact on skin aging and cancer risk. If you are at a higher risk for skin cancer, see a board-certified dermatologist to get a baseline skin cancer screening and they will let you know how often you need to have follow-up visits.”

Categories: BeWell